Book Review

Perls of Wisdom

by Randal L. Schwartz

APress, 2005
Reviewed by Peter Scott

This book is a compendium of dozens of Randal's most interesting columns from magazines like Sysadmin, Linux Journal, and the dearly departed Web Techniques. Going back over the last decade, these columns range from the relentlessly pragmatic (what is a Perl subroutine and how do you make one?) to the whimsically useless (measuring the readability of the Unix manual pages). Chalk one up for the my-deadline-is-tonight-what-do-I-write-about syndrome.

The credentials of the author are of course impeccable, but for anyone new to the Perl field, Randal is the author of the "Learning Perl" series of O'Reilly books, and the creator of the world's most prominent Perl classes. In the Perl pantheon, Randal sits maybe not at the right hand of Larry Wall, but certainly on some appendage nearly as important.

Writing for magazines has a wonderful way of concentrating the mind. For one thing, you have a short amount of space to make your point, not only in length but in width. When all your code examples have to look good in 35-column lines, it does enforce clarity in a way nothing else can.

Due to their age, some of these columns have since been superseded by newer techniques, newer Perl capabilities, and newer modules. Most of the time, Randal mentions these caveats in a sentence before the article, which is left unexpurgated from its original form. This is a very attractive tactic for the author (parcel up existing material, ship it off with a new sentence added to each one, get paid again), but a reader might wish for more from someone accustomed to writing 2.5 columns a month already.

The question any prospective buyer of this book has to ask is, why purchase something that is available electronically? All Randal's past columns are accessible from his area of the Stonehenge web site. This raises the usual questions about paper vs bytes, the "can't grep dead trees" vs "can read it in the bathroom" arguments. And being one of those people who spends enough time in front of a screen every day as it is, I welcome the chance to pick up hard copy. Don't underestimate the value of attractive formatting in making something more readable and thereby increasing learning speed, either.

Whether you purchase this convenient book or whether you read the columns on-line (or whether, like me, you read them all in their original magazine print form anyway), the value of the material in these columns is unquestionable.